When Book Groups Get Really B-I-G

How do you choose a book if your group has 5000 members?

Some brainy folks are attempting to answer this question for the third time on the University of Washington campus, as the little team of faculty members and librarians on the committee to choose the incoming freshman class’s Common Book for 2008 begin searching for the next campus-wide read. Besides the freshmen, who will have discussion groups and planned activities around the book all year long, the rest of campus reads the book, too, so that the impact of the book is potentially huge.

This will be the third Common Book. The unofficial score on the Common Book selection so far: one win, one loss.

The first book chosen was Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, and a finer book could not have been chosen. Dr Paul Farmer’s attempt to bring medicine to the rest of the world is exhilarating, inspirational stuff, and Kidder is such a warm, fine human being that his appearance on campus, and his slide show of the changes Dr Farmer has been able to make, were enough to make us all want to volunteer on the spot.

The second choice was a mistake. Field Notes for a Catastrophe has an important subject in global warming, but it’s flat, impersonal non-fiction. It’s disturbing information, but not inspirational. It did not bring the thrill of reading pleasure. No one ever said, “Wow, I loved it!” There are still piles of it in the bookstore. Just imagine if the committee had chosen Al Gore’s much more personal and gripping An Inconvenient Truth. We would have had a Nobel Prize-winner speaking on campus!

Ah, well. Here we are on the brink of another choice. The campus bookstore doesn’t get to vote, but the truth is, a number of  professors and librarians on the committee stop in the little branch bookstore where I work and ask for my ideas. So I participate on the sidelines in my behind-the-scenes way, whispering and suggesting, nudging and hoping for the best.

Let’s hope none of them minds if I give away a few of their secrets.

For a while the front runner sounded like it was Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, the moving account of an injured mountaineer who vows to bring a school to the village that nurses him back to health and goes on to build fifty schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Not brilliant writing, maybe, but extremely touching and motivational in the extreme, with a powerhouse speaker of an author, it was, however, dealt the card of death. It was another book about a white man out to save the world.

Which is probably the card that kills my top choice.

Every year I urge anyone who will listen to choose Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, the personal account of a brave, super-smart 30-year-old Scots historian walking unarmed across Afghanistan in winter, trusting in the Muslim tradition of hospitality. Rory is a top-notch writer, an electrifying speaker, and he lives his truth: he has moved to Kabul and begun the Turquoise Mountain Foundation to restore classic buildings and clear rubble from the streets. My kind of hero, a man who gave up academia to work in a Third World country.

Apparently not a committee favorite.

I’ve also repeatedly urged the selection of Dave Eggers’ What Is the What, the fictionalized autobiography of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. A harrowing glimpse into the realities of genocide, a brilliant job of adopting a persona utterly unlike the author’s, and the profits from the book go to help build a community center in the village destroyed in the story. The University could actually be hands-on participating in Africa. Too long, says the committee.

Okay, then, how about Mohsin Hamid’s SHORT, utterly engaging dazzler, The Reluctant Fundamentalist? It’s about a student from Pakistan becoming extremely successful in the United States until September 11 re-arranges his world. Would it be too controversial to show a student who turns his back on American values when he begins to see exactly what they cost?

Of all the books I’ve quietly nudged the committee toward, one of them has managed to stay afloat as a candidate. Now I’m just keeping my mouth shut and my fingers crossed. It’s Sonia Nazario’s eye-opening Enrique’s Journey, the story of how children in Mexico risk their lives trying to find their working mothers in the United States. The book has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for her superb journalism and one for the heartbreaking photo section. With a brave, compassionate female journalist hero daring to make the trip across Mexico and the border herself, the book opens up the nightmares of immigration, where one country provides the cheap labor force for another.

What a superb goal: to motivate 5000 bright kids to think about solving the injustices of our immigration laws!

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

1 Comment on "When Book Groups Get Really B-I-G"

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  1. foltzl@sanfordschool.org' Lynn Foltz says:

    Consider Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

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